Where are the women in Australian theatre? On a Sunday afternoon in early December, most of them were sitting in Sydney’s Belvoir St Theatre waiting for the Philip Parsons Young Playwright’s Award announcement and annual lecture, which this year gave way to a panel discussion about the absence of women in positions of creative authority in the Australian theatre scene.
Earlier this year, when Company B launched its 2010 Season — presenting a lone woman in a line-up of men on stage — a spate of public conversations about the industry erupted in print and online media: here, here and here, about the invisibility of women in positions of creative authority. These discussions culminated in this year’s Philip Parsons lecture, "Where are the Women?".
The truth of the matter is that women in positions of creative authority are largely invisible — but that certainly doesn’t mean that they don’t exist or that they aren’t working incredibly hard. Some of the most brilliant women in theatre are working in less visible — or rather, less marketable and glamorous — sectors: community theatre, youth theatre, independent theatre. On the main stages of Australia (with the Black Swan State Theatre Company a notable exception), they are mostly working in development positions like Tahli Corin at B Sharp, as general managers like Brenna Hobson at Company B, and as education managers like Naomi Edwards at the Sydney Theatre Company.
On those same stages we are overwhelmed by male figures of authority: Neil Armfield as the father of the Belvoir St Family; Andrew Upton as the artistic director of the Sydney Theatre Company — along with his largely invisible wife who is busy being "visible" overseas or in cinemas; Nick Marchand of the Griffin Theatre; Michael Gow of the Queensland Theatre Company; and David Berthold of La Boite Theatre — the list stretches on.
We have venues named after men — Sydney’s Richard Wherrett Theatre, Melbourne’s Lawler Studio, Brisbane’s Bille Brown Theatre. We see these names everywhere: on signs, plaques, in local news, in foyers, in newspapers.
Usually, an individual delivers the Parsons lecture but this year, a panel was assembled which was comprised of several women in positions of creative authority: Rachel Healy, director of performing arts at the Opera House; blogger and critic Alison Croggon; emerging director Shannon Murphy; Marion Potts, associate artistic director at Bell Shakespeare, and Gil Appleton who was asked to provide an historical overview. Chaired by Monica Attard, an ambitious agenda was set for discussion: the "boys club" of the theatre industry; nepotism; training institutions; the politics of quotas and the programming of work "selected on merit not gender".
Was this panel discussion an attempt to divide and conquer women? Or was it an attempt to advertise just how many women in a position of creative authority exist in the country — and how many of them have been helped by Belvoir in their career pursuits? The discussion that ensued was timely and much needed but did not yield any definitive answers.
After the panel, a microphone was passed around the audience.
The first to join the conversation was Elke Neidhardt, an accomplished opera director who asked the panel how much merit women need to make the grade? And in a response which amplified the invisibility of even accomplished women directors, she was first asked in response, "can you tell us your name?"
Playwright Suzie Miller spoke next, disputing the assertion that programmers, artistic directors and general managers chose works based purely on "merit". If that was the case, she argued, more women would be represented in the main stage theatres, as many of Australia’s playwrights and directors readily find work overseas, but not in their own country.
A woman with her hair in a profusion of hair clips stood up and declared "I’m Gale Edwards." Edwards proceeded to point to the lack of precedents for women directors in this country, emphasising that for Australian women to work, they have to pursue their career overseas. They are thus invisible in Australia; she then spontaneously identified emerging director Kate Revz — who is easily recognised by her penchant for red. And then behind me, I heard someone mutter:"So that’s what Gale Edwards looks like!"
The conversation covered both the symptoms and the causes of the absence of women in key creative roles. Some of the reasons advanced for why women are so poorly represented were high-level women judging other women practitioners harshly; the inherent nepotism of main stage culture and a broader cultural gearing against women in positions of authority in Australia, in which masculine matrices of marketing and commercialisation are a factor. To combat the furphy of male-dominated seasons chosen on merit not gender, the instigation of a quota system for women in main stage seasons was canvassed. Not surprisingly, different voices brought different perspectives to the discussion. We could all see many sides of the story and no firm conclusion was reached — except to "keep the conversation going".
For me, the most interesting part of the day was finding out what this invisible industry actually looks like: an army of articulate and accomplished women. And I am left considering many questions for myself: why are we so invisible and so easily overlooked? Perhaps women theatre practitioners have been too polite? Perhaps we don’t want to be seen as noisy troublemakers? Perhaps we don’t want to become tangled up in the full-time pursuit of marketing ourselves? Perhaps we are too busy battling our self-doubt? Maybe we are not hard wired with a killer instinct or a tendency to "show off"?
I still don’t know the answer to all these questions — but I think it is important to monitor the visibility of women in our theatres. I am sure that if Robyn Archer was the artistic director of Belvoir, and there was a painting of Dorothy Hewett in the foyer of the Sydney Theatre, and there was a Studio Theatre named after Hilary Bell, and an award named after Katharine Brisbane, and if the opening night speeches thanking Audi and Armani were delivered by Cate Blanchett … well, I’m sure it would be a very different industry.